Condor Blues (Mail On Sunday 11/02/07)


Book Reviewer
Iraq has been described as 'Hell with flies', and nowhere was that truer than at the tiny Camp Condor, home to 30 British soldiers in the spring of 2004.

The young working-class soldiers, a mixture of Scottish and English, were in the southern province of Maysan to train the recalcitrant force that would become the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps.

Their job was maddening; the camp's facilities were rudimentary and alcohol was officially banned, so they amused themselves in bizarre but inventive ways.

That some involved Viagra, home-made mortars and a donkey, however, would have surprised even the most battle-hardened fighters.

But the 'Condorites', should not be judged too harshly. Aged between 18 and 22, these Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were serving in a country where survival was the only imperative.

Raised on a diet of Mars bars and chips, some of the youngest of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders looked 14. They were inclined to get their kicks today because tomorrow a rocket-propelled grenade could blow their heads off
Fortunately for them, Condor, which was just a couple of accommodation blocks with makeshift showers on a vast expanse of dusty ground, was free of parade-ground discipline, and the absence of senior officers contributed to the high degree of horseplay.

Awake at 6am every day, the men spent mornings teaching 400 Iraqis basic infantry tactics and procedures such as conducting searches. Weapons training was not needed: every man in Iraq knew how to handle a rifle.

In the evenings they would take the Iraqis out to patrol Route Six, the main highway between Baghdad and Basra. But between 1pm and 4pm it was too hot to work, leaving them plenty of free time. A dark humour prevailed, and the closer the shave with death, the funnier it was.

One afternoon Sergeant Paul Kelly, platoon commander Lieutenant James Passmore and a private held a shooting contest on the adjacent airfield. For a target they used a rusting metal object, shaped like a tuna can but twice the size.

The private's first bullet brought him victory. He held the punctured target aloft and was only slightly perturbed when he saw wires protruding from it - it crossed his mind that it might be an anti-personnel mine. But since it hadn't exploded, he assumed it was an old tank part, and took it back to camp.

For the next few weeks the can was kicked around the television room, until it was Private Kevin Challis's day to clean the camp. All the rubbish was disposed of in a burning pit, so Challis hurled the can on to the pile and walked off. A few minutes later, the camp was shaken by an explosion that left a deep crater.

The alcohol ban at Camp Condor had been instigated by Lieutenant Colonel Jonny Gray, the Argylls' commanding officer, who believed his Jocks were 'bad for the bar', and knew they had a taste for Buckfast Tonic Wine, a drink consumed in prodigious quantities in some of Glasgow's poorest neighbourhoods.

But his men had no intention of disentangling themselves from their country's twisted relationship with alcohol, even though whoever said civilisation started with distillation could not have tasted 'Buckie', or the tinned whisky sold by the Iraqi trainees.

The Jocks also arranged for friends and family back in Britain to pour Buckfast into Coca-Cola bottles and post them to the camp.

More surprising was the boys' appetite for Viagra, also supplied by their Iraqi pupils, who were nicknamed jundies. What was the point of buying such a tablet when there were few, if any, women around?

A private explained he intended to get rich after the war by selling the tablets in Clydebank at inflated prices. 'You've got yer Fair Trade coffee in Starbucks that's benefitin' the farmers in the Third World. I'm just daein the same with the jundies an' their tablets. Nae harm in that.'

The biggest threat to his profit margin was the temptation to spike his mates' water bottles - with embarrassing and unexpected results for the victims.

One Viagra supplier was a shop in Abu Naji, a larger British camp also in Maysan province. It sold Coca-Cola, cigarettes and alarm clocks shaped like mosques, but under the counter were Viagra, pornography and whisky.

Its owner, nicknamed Bob, was a familiar sight riding around Abu Naji on his bicycle. He seemed a plump and harmless Iraqi gentleman, until the day he exposed himself to one of the British soldiers and requested sex. The private fetched his rifle and chased Bob out of the camp.
The top brass did their bit to make up for the absence of women. In April 2004 the Condorites joined soldiers from other British units to watch a trio of girl dancers at a Combined Services Entertainment show.

Gunfire from Al Amarah, the provincial capital, threatened to drown out the music, but the women carried on, dancing to the beat of the AK-47s.

But the performance only succeeded in reminding the men of what they missed most. Private James 'Larks' Larkin was driven to distraction by the gyrating females.

'I can't take this - it's torture,' he said. I'm trying to forget about women. I'd rather have a comedian. Lads get a sniff of a bird and that's it. It makes them depressed. I don't want to think about birds.'

That evening returned to Larkin as he stood on guard duty in the shimmering heat days later. Closing his eyes, he could see the dancing girls again, cavorting with abandon.

Suddenly his reverie was shattered by a pain as sharp as a hornet's bite. He brought his hand up and dabbed at his hairline.

He stared at his bloodied forefinger. He had been shot in the head, but not by an Iraqi.

For 'amusement', Condorites took shots with an air rifle at whoever was on guard duty. But Larkin was the first to actually be hit. He staggered to the camp in search of Chris Dodd, the medic.

'Can you get it out?', Larkin asked, wincing as Chris prodded the area.

'It's pretty deep inside there,' he replied.

Sergeant Stuart 'Hendy' Henderson arrived and Dodd told him he would have to take Larkin to Abu Naji.

But fearing the company commander would go berserk if he heard about the shooting, Henderson decided surgery would go ahead at Condor. The Ops room was cleared and Henderson held down Larkin's legs.

The patient refused a tin of Iraqi whisky as an anaesthetic, instead biting on a wooden spatula as Dodd used a scalpel to extract the pellet.

After a painful but successful operation the private who fired the shot was 'squared away' - Henderson's method of punishing soldiers, usually a blow to the stomach or jaw.

Violence was so interwoven into the Jocks' lives, there were no complaints about Henderson, a reformed football hooligan.

One of the carrots the Army dangled before the Condorites was two weeks of rest and recreation at the Shaibah Logistics Base.

It was little more than a supermarket, a pizza restaurant and a flushing lavatory, but it was astonishingly attractive - thanks to the presence of female soldiers. Stories fuelled expectations.

The Ministry of Defence would not say how many female service personnel in southern Iraq had fallen pregnant, but a fair proportion of these conceptions had occurred at 'Shaih-Ibiza', as the soldiers called it.

There were DVDs in circulation of men having sex with female soldiers in trucks, the only place they could get some privacy. Although no Condorite could provide first-hand testimony, it was said a few female personnel at Shaibah traded favours for phone cards to call their boyfriends in Britain.
By contrast, Iraqi women were strictly off-limits. In an effort to respect local religious beliefs, soldiers were under orders not to search them. But Lance Corporal Mark 'Keegs' Keegan was convinced the locals were using women to smuggle weapons.

Finally he snapped and chased a vehicle driven by a woman wearing a veil. The driver and her female passenger jettisoned rifles as they sped away; eight more were found when the car was stopped.

The women had ammunition hidden beneath their dresses. After that Keegan even searched a woman while she was breastfeeding.

Keegan was a rough-and-ready soldier, but he had a soft spot for animals. On patrol one day, he came across an old, bedraggled and deranged donkey with an infected eye and a flea-bitten coat. He bought it for a few pounds and smuggled it into camp, pledging to give it a better life.

Treated like a VIP, the donkey toured Condor and starred in several photographs. It lived off Keegan's favourite dish, Chicken Kiev, and rotting fruit from a bucket.

But its popularity waned somewhat when it urinated in the gymnasium, where the Condorites spent most of their free time.

The donkey was not enough to distract Keegan, and he amused himself by creating his own mortar - made from baked-bean cans lashed together with masking tape and fuelled by petrol.

Before he could test it, Lieutenant Passmore caught him - and Keegan found himself doing extra guard duty.

Meanwhile, the donkey's calling card was discovered in the gym for the second time, and Corporal Alan Cherry issued a simple instruction: 'Get rid of it.'

The animal was dragged into a Pinzgauer all-terrain vehicle and driven to the far end of the airfield next to the camp.

The soldiers bundled it out and drove away, hoping it would wander towards a nearby town. But half an hour later the donkey trotted back into camp. When the men took it to the airfield a second time, the donkey followed them home again.

But for the third trip, Cherry had issued ammunition - the donkey was not coming back this time. At the airfield, Larkin, who had not seen any action, was given the grim task. As he loaded his gun, he could hear laughter from the vehicle.

'Come on, mate, get it over with.'

Larkin knew that backing out now would be interpreted as cowardice. His first shot missed altogether. The next shot clipped the donkey's neck. It let out an anguished groan.

From a range of no more than a metre, Larkin fired the fatal shot and, with its final breath, the donkey spat blood on to his trousers.

Back at Condor, Lieutenant Passmore sensed something was missing. 'Where's the donkey?', he asked Larkin.

'We shot it.'


'Because it was peeing everywhere.'

'You're out of order. Go and get a shovel.'

Larks returned, guessing the punishment: the Portaloos were full and his task was to dig pits, deep pits.

Later, Keegan broke the news to his friend Challis, who had become quite attached to the donkey. Challis ran to where Larkin was digging. 'What 'ave you done, Larks?'

'Oh, don't give it all that, Kev,' said Larkin defensively.

'I 'ate you, Larks, for doin' that. That donkey was well 'appy. It wasn't a slave any more.'

'Yeah, all right, mate. It was a health hazard.'

'F*** you, Larks. I hate you.'

A well-meaning soldier with a conscience, Larkin knew he had done wrong, but in the absurd and brutal environment of Iraq and Camp Condor, normal morals did not apply.



Extracted from Condor Blues, by Mark Nicol, published by Mainstream on March 1 at £17.99. To order your copy for £16.20 with free p&p, call the Review Bookstore on 0870 165 0870.

I was at Abu Naji in 2004
I have some questions / doubts
Any one else there corroberate / debunk some the above

My bold

1) Between 1300 and 1400 No work - Never heard of that one
2) Would you really carry a 'can' with wires sticking out of it back to camp?
3) As I remember ' Bob' was escorted off site by Robbo and the QM lads not by a soldier who had gone to get his weapon to chase him off site
4) CSE show at Abu Naji remember being told there was one at BAS?
5) 2 Weeks R & R at Shaiaynapa? Again never heard of that
6) DVD's of birds shagging in 4 tonners - Army myth? heard similar from the Falklands to Kosovo do you for cash, phone cards all sorts

Like I say I'm willing to belive it just because I didn't see it dosen't mean it didn't happen
Just seems as though there may have been a bit of bigging it up
I stand by waiting to be corrected
Any thoughts

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